Running towards Ramban through a cluster of dust on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, Shubham Dharmsktu shouted, “Oh fuck!” and disappeared with a bang on the phone line. After a few restless minutes during which I ran through a hundred scenarios on what might’ve happened, he got back on line. “Shit, my phone broke.”
The 25-year-old native of Uttarakhand, who goes on Instagram by @shubyatra, started walking from Kashmir on November 5, with merely four water bottles, a couple of apples, and just one change of clothes. According to his estimate, after walking through Jammu-Chandigarh-Delhi-Jaipur-Ahmedabad-Mumbai-Bengaluru, he will make it to Kanyakumari on foot in the next five months, covering a distance of approximately 4,000 kilometres. He is currently in Punjab. Before this, he has also cycled across 6,000 km of the Himalayan belt from Arunachal Pradesh to the east of Kashmir Valley in 105 days.
Dharmsktu talked to VICE about his experience of sleeping in police stations and petrol pumps, fighting blisters and a bleeding butt.
VICE: How did it all start?
Shubham Dharmsktu: Education never made sense to me. In 2012, I was in the second year of my Bachelor’s course from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad when I lost hope in the system. One night at 2 AM, I took my cycle and coffee, and went out on the road. I didn’t return for a semester, and cycled from Ahmedabad to Bangalore. After that, it went on, and I never looked back. However, I went back to college after a year’s break and finished it [the course].
How did you sustain a living while travelling?
Okay, first of all, I never travel with money. I never stay in a hotel or pay for my food. What I usually do is visit the nearest college, make friends there and crash at their places for food and a bed.
There were times when I went to temples, gurudwaras and even police stations for a place to stay. Once, I was in Valsad [Gujarat] and I walked straight into a police station and said, “Please, give me a place to stay. I don't mind sleeping in jail either,” and they looked at me and said, “Yeh kya cheez hai (What is this thing)?” By the end of the night, I had landed in a police-sponsored government quarter. When I was in Daman while cycling from Ahmedabad to Bengaluru, I asked the district commissioner to give me a place to stay. I ended up sleeping in a lavish circuit house. When I was on the Bombay highway, I slept in filling stations and ate with the staff there.
Cycling thousands of kilometres and walking across India is a big ambition. How did you prepare yourself physically?
I was never a ‘sports kid’. I was a geek and a bookworm. I never went to a gym in my life, not even had a proper diet plan ever. It is just the ambition in mind that keeps me going. I’ve felt sick on highways. I’ve had my butt bleeding at times. But it is like that; that’s how you learn to cope with nature.
Tell us about the hardships on such journeys.
On many occasions, I haven’t found food. I’ve been stranded on highways for a couple of nights. Once, I was cycling through the interiors of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and couldn’t find food for a day. When I finally encountered a government grocery shop, he refused to give me food without money. I ate some sugar and went on for another day. You need to understand that these were not my bad times, but hard ones. I had my butt bleeding, and was fighting blisters. I was crying for nights; those are hard times, but people are never hard. I survive on my journeys because of people. During my college days, I used to practice roza [a day of fast either in the month of Ramzan or a supererogatory one outside Ramzan]. The religious ideologies really helped me in growing.
What role does religion play in it?
Stories say Allah sent a human, Prophet Muhammad, to roam around the world and preach his ideas. Nobody cared about Rama until he was out in the jungle for 14 years. No one knew who was Siddharth, the king’s child—he left home, roamed around to become Buddha, and everyone was like “Woohoo!” And Jesus was a hippie anyway. But all of them knew that in order to become chill, they gotta roam around.
What is the difference between the first day of your travel and the last one? Where do you get the motivation to complete the thousands of kilometres in between those?
The whole point of this journey is that it doesn’t have endpoints. This doesn’t end at Kanyakumari, but another one starts there. We all start projects in life and leave them midway. I wanted to give up so many times, but I didn’t. The motivation and the motive of this journey are to tell people that there are things we want to start today, but we push it to tomorrow. And it doesn't happen. I want to talk about that. When you sow a seed, don't expect the root; enjoy the process. Don't think about the job, money or a fucking shaadi (marriage). Enjoy the process. And I am only doing that.
People like the feeling of belonging to a particular place, but I'm not like that. I feel like I belong to this world. We, the people, have created boundaries; the world is borderless.
What have been some of your most memorable moments?
One time in Bhutan, I trekked carrying a cycle on my shoulder for eight hours to reach Tiger’s Nest [on a cliffside]. I was dead by the time I reached there. On my way back, I cycled down the Himalayas. I had never done that. I made a video of it saying, “I might be dead, but I want you to know that I was happy.”
Once, I was on the highway and my cycle got punctured. I didn’t have money. I dragged it to a small stray cycle shop. The guy was very poor, but when I told him about my journey, he repaired it for free. He also gave me a kit and two spare tire-tubes. It was my first sponsorship.
How do you see the #Wanderlust people on social media?
For me, travelling is not going to Paris, but even a short walk to your chaiwala. Sit there, talk to him and his customers—that is travelling. A caveman wouldn’t have invented fire if he never left the cave. Social media is all about good photos of good places, and not bad experiences. Their imagination of travelling is going to good places and posting the luxury they just lived. But the distance doesn’t make you a traveller; it’s the observation and knowledge you gathered midway that makes you one. I was never a social media person. People forced me to join Instagram to stay connected even after I left their place.
Have you watched any hitchhiking movies?
I’m not much into movies. Though a lot of people asked me about the movie on Christopher McCandless' life Into The Wild. Well, we all know its end. But I’m very much into music. My favourites are cinematic orchestra and songs with motivational lyrics. I hate love songs.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned while travelling?
We have fucked the environment. People spend on gadgets, plastic water bottles, and other stuff. The money goes to multinational companies, while the plastic goes to locals. Tourism fucks the environment. The three elements for the necessity of life are water, food, and air. We’ve fucked all of them. That’s why I founded a company Travel Living. It focuses on eco-friendly and sustainable travel alternatives. We offer environmentally safe products and services.
Okay, let’s be aunties. What about the future? Marriage, kids and a job?
Oh aunty, don't worry about it. I have a lot of plans for my future. This project only covers India, the world is unexplored.
Follow Yashraj Sharma on Twitter.